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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Head to head: World War I pardons
Soldiers
Many soldiers suffered from shell-shock in World War I
More than 300 soldiers shot dead for military offences during World War I - including cowardice, desertion - are to be pardoned.

Campaigners had claimed that many had been suffering from shell-shock.

Is a group pardon long overdue or would it rewrite history?

MILITARY HISTORIAN PETER CADDICK-ADAMS

I believe Des Browne has got this wrong.

It may be a popular view but, as an academic historian, this is distorting historical fact.

I accept that this was a real tragedy for those concerned and miscarriages of justice happened. Some of those sentenced and executed were clearly suffering from shell-shock, nothing more.

And I accept that this remains traumatic for the relatives of those executed but we cannot be certain of the evidence in every case, and several of the executed had a case to answer by the standards of the day.

Mr Browne has recognised that this case can only be judged by today's legal standards - which are different to 1914-18 - and without the circumstance of fighting a war for national survival.

He is proposing to issue a special blanket pardon, overriding the issues of historical proof and the clash of legal standards of today versus those of yesterday.

Surely the way to confront this World War I tragedy is to remember it not pretend that it had never happened
Stalin used to literally airbrush figures out of photographs, pretending that they had never existed. This is doing the same.

Surely the way to confront this World War I tragedy is to remember it, not pretend that it had never happened, and make sure it never happens again.

Over 3,000 soldiers were convicted of crimes of desertion, disobedience and cowardice, and sentenced to death.

But only 10% of the sentences were carried out.

What about those convicted, but who served a custodial or hard labour sentence instead?

Some were guilty of crimes that would have given them a death sentence back home, in a civilian court, in peacetime.

If Mr Browne pursues this retrospective distortion of fact, then this puts historians in a difficult situation, daily uncovering truths that are so uncomfortable that government then has to retrospectively "change" history.

JOHN McGEEHAN OF CAMPAIGN GROUP SHOT AT DAWN

I'm a relative and, on a personal level, I'm absolutely delighted with Des Browne's decision.

My second cousin Bernard McGeehan, of the Liverpool King's Regiment, was executed on 2 November 1916, accused of desertion. He was completely shell-shocked.

This decision is so important because it leaves a chapter in the lives of 306 British families closed.

It is important on humanitarian grounds.

For critics that say this is rewriting history - it is not. The story wasn't finished.

These people went into the Ministry of Defence archive for 75 years before they were rediscovered in the early 1990s.

The Shot at Dawn campaign was set up as a result of this.

I think, in the circumstances, a group pardon was the only way
Some people say that we can't be certain of the evidence in every case but that some had a case to answer.

Clearly, the British military committee thought 306 people had a case to answer because they shot them.

Mr Browne recognises that to take cases individually would be difficult because of difficulties with evidence so he's announced a group pardon.

In the Shot at Dawn campaign, we didn't specify what sort of a pardon we wanted.

I think, in the circumstances, a group pardon was the only way.

I personally haven't got final closure.

I will only get that when Bernard's name is on the role of honour in the cathedral of his home town of Derry, in Northern Ireland, and on the war memorial in Derry.



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